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HITTING THE ROPES: Hell’s Kitchen starring Vince McMahon!

David Buckler

June 2012


At some point in your life you have told Vincent Kennedy McMahon to go to hell.


We all have.  Every single one of us.  Every single wrestling fan has done this at one time or another.  Whether you’re a casual fan who just watches Monday Night Raw or a hardcore fan that attends WrestleMania every year.  You have done this.  I guarantee it.


You have yelled at him through your television.  You have bitched about him to your friends.  You have made fun of him.  You have made fun of his family.  You have chastised him.  You have criticized him.  You have used his name in vain.  You have wanted to punch him in the nose.


But I bet you have never stopped watching his product.


As we approached WrestleMania 28 I was reminded again of what an international phenomenon the WWE has become.  People from all 50 states had purchased WrestleMania tickets.  People were going to fly in from all over the world and storm the city of Miami for an entire week going to parties, hanging out with friends, and meeting their favorite wrestlers.  You may not like him, but Vincent Kennedy McMahon is responsible for all of this.


Last year the WWE released a DVD retelling the history of WrestleMania and no matter how many times you hear the story it’s pretty incredible.  In 1985 Vince took advantage of the perfect storm: his global vision + cable TV + rock music (remember Cindy Lauper?) + Hulk Hogan created a show for the ages.  It was the start of something bigger than even he probably thought it would become.  We forget now what a big risk he took.  Not only by mortgaging his financial future but also by taking the WWF product across the entire country.  Vince broke through territorial boundaries by abiding by the concept “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs”.  And he broke a lot of eggs.


(If you want a great recap of the rise of the WWF I highly recommend “Sex, Lies, and Headlocks” by Shawn Assael and Mike Mooneyham.  The book is fascinating and contains some great Vince stories.  For me it was a must read.)


In general I like Vince.  I have been a WWF/WWE fan since 1985 and Vince’s product has brought me a lot of joy over the years.   I vividly remember specific matches and moments as if they happened yesterday.  Hogan slamming Andre.  The Mega-Powers exploding.  The Harts stealing the belts.  DiBiase buying people.  Honky Tonk pushing Liz.  Warrior pinning Hogan.  HBK and Razor climbing a ladder.  Bret and Owen in a cage.  Stone Cold bleeding all over himself.  Shane on Nitro.  Beth carrying Santino around.  HBK and Taker in Houston.  Layla and Michelle causing trouble.  Some of my favorite wrestling memories…and Vince is responsible for each one of them.


It has always been trendy for wrestling fans to take shots at Vince.  To laugh and recount his mistakes and turn him into some type of buffoon.  (His on screen character is certainly to blame for part of that.  A whole generation of fans only knows him as the outlandish Mr. McMahon character.)  Have there been some missteps over the years?  Of course.  Some really BIG ones actually.  Some of which have embarrassed HIM more than the actual WWE product itself.  Does anybody remember the World Bodybuilding Federation?  How about the XFL?  And certainly the steroid trial in the 90’s exposed a dark underbelly within the WWF, and whether or not Vince was directly responsible for the distribution of illegal steroids, do you really believe he had no idea it was happening?  Please.  Recently many people did not “Stand Up” for the WWE, a misguided attempt to help Linda’s Senatorial campaign.


And let’s not even discuss the Owen Hart incident.  That’s much too painful.  Although I will give Vince credit for standing by his decision even as most thought it was terribly distasteful.  Of course it’s very easy for us to criticize; it wasn’t out decision to make.


Some people will begrudgingly admit Vince is a good business man.  But then they claim a good bit of his success was due to dumb luck.  He was lucky that Hulk Hogan fell into his lap when cable TV was ready to penetrate every home in America.  He was lucky that Rocky and Stone Cold helped turn around the entire company just in time to avoid financial ruin (and just before WCW put him out of business for good).


Maybe Vince WAS lucky along the way…but Vince has also been very smart and savy.  The truth is few people have changed an entire industry like he has.  In my opinion he belongs in the same conversation as Ted Turner (TBS, CNN), Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Howard Schultz (Starbucks), and Steve Case (AOL).  Visionaries and pioneers in their fields.  And yes, each of them also made bad business decisions at some point or another (let me know if you need 50 free hours of AOL; I have a few of those disks lying around.)


Think how the WWE has changed the profile of professional wrestling around the world.  Using in-ring action to create stars and sell merchandise may sound simple but nobody has done it better than the WWE.  Vince creates stars and we buy stuff.  I don’t even know how much money I’ve spent over the years on action figures, posters, DVDs, t-shirts, and ice cream bars.


As for his personal issues…I don’t really care.  The stories are interesting to hear but he isn’t my dad, my son, or my boss.  His private life doesn’t impact me and in general I try not to judge people.  Like the old saying goes, “Let he who is without Sin Cara cast the first stone.” I’m not interested in his moral character, which has admittedly been suspect over the years.  Let the Justice System deal with that.


Look, I get it.  Vince is a lightening rod who brings a lot of attention on himself, and sometimes he does comes across as a major a$$hole.  His high profile company incites and encourages almost endless debate and Vince is often in the middle of all of it.  But, man, where is the respect for someone this successful?  The guy practically prints money.  The WWE is so far ahead of their competition financially that it’s hard to even call anyone else “competition” (at least here in the USA).  And please don’t try to sell me TNA.  Seriously, do you think Vince loses sleep over TNA?  They may present better wrestling (as do many of the indie promotions around the country), but that doesn’t seem to be what motivates Vince.  To quote Puff Daddy, “It’s all about the Benjamin’s.”  Competitors have come and gone…but Vince is always left standing.


But can you say his company is the best?


I believe this is a key issue within the wrestling community.  Everyone knows the WWE makes the most money, but is it the “best” wrestling promotion?  Well, again, they DO make the most money and that’s kind of how I define “best” when it comes to business.  Does Starbucks make the best coffee?  Who knows but CEO Howard Schultz most likely doesn’t care.  He probably stirs his coffee with $100 bills.  But I will admit that this is not how everyone defines “best”.  If you ignore bank statements the question then becomes “Does the WWE actually have the “best” professional wrestling product?”  Now that is a valid argument, and one you could argue for and against.


Some people defend the WWE because their product is very entertaining, very colorful, and very culturally significant (it’s surprising how many times the WWE is sprinkled into pop culture references).  There are many fans, though, that don’t find Vince’s form of professional wrestling “entertaining” because the in-ring action seems to take a backseat to character-driven drama.  These fans want more actual wrestling.  Less sizzle.  More steak.  I understand that, and that’s why it’s great there are many options, many other promotions, for fans to support.  Sounds like a win-win to me.  However since the WWE gets the most attention, the stars in these other promotions never quite get the acclaim they deserve for their actual wrestling skills and this drives some fans crazy.


Never is this more apparent than in the world of women’s wrestling.  When Vince started phasing in his current generation of Divas, the public perception – whether it is true or not – is that most of them can’t wrestle very well, that they were hired simply because they were “hot” and had a certain physical look.  Some fans believe a lot of the Divas are taking spots that rightfully belong to more deserving girls…i.e. “better” wrestlers.  They criticize Vince because he hires models like Kelly Kelly and Maryse but he doesn’t hire indie stars like Sara Del Rey, Mercedes Martinez, and Cheerleader Melissa.  Some former WWE Divas feel this way as well.  Jazz said as much during an interview last year, claiming that many of the current Divas didn’t pay their dues to get where they are.


Of course this argument assumes all the girls in the business want to work for Vince.  I just don’t think this is true given the current WWE product.  Mercedes is a multi-time world champion who is well-respected within the industry.  Does she really want to start working 3 minute matches on Raw?  Sure the money is great and the exposure is fantastic, but knowing Vince there is no guarantee wrestlers will be used to the best of their ability.  This matters to some.  And it certainly matters to their fans.  If a girl wants to routinely showcase her technical abilities and wrestle strong matches, the WWE may not provide her that opportunity.


And be fair – painting all the Divas as just “models in spandex” is ridiculous.  The WWE definitely has some world-class workers.  Yet the “Divas” product itself is so heavily promoted that some of their talent gets diluted and falls through the cracks, which is a shame because Beth Phoenix, Natalya, and some others are obviously accomplished professional wrestlers.  Some of the girls, such as Kelly Kelly and Eve Torres, are showing improvement.  And how about a little respect for Kelly Kelly, the poster child for the Divas?  She’s been in the WWE for a long time now, and while she might never become an amazing technical wrestler, she does represent the WWE well, she has a huge fan base, and she accounts herself just fine during her matches.


At the end of the day, though, the WWE Divas product certainly isn’t for everybody.  WrestleMania 28 was further proof of that.  Did we really need to see a TV host pin the current Divas champion?  Beth vs. Natalya wouldn’t have been better than that?  Classic Vince.  But this isn’t the first time he has used entertainers to supplement his programs and it certainly won’t be the last time.  His company, his decision.  And really, is Maria Menounos any worse than Snooki, Pete Rose, or Donald Trump?


If anything my problem with Vince isn’t WHICH Divas, or Superstars, he hires but rather HOW he uses them.  You want to hire Kelly Kelly?  Fine.  Just give her good storylines!  I gotta admit I was excited to hear Awesome Kong signed with the WWE last year.  I give Vince credit for signing someone atypical, now let’s keep our fingers crossed that Kong is eventually given some high profile matches.  The funny thing is that when Kong signed with the WWE Vince was even criticized for that move.  “He won’t know what to do with her!”  With Vince there are always those who will argue the other side of the coin.


Here’s the thing – there is no rule that says the WWE has to employ the “best” technical wrestlers in the world.  This isn’t the NFL.  Vince has every right to hire anybody he wants and then use them as he pleases.  I don’t always agree, but we always have the right to watch his show or turn the channel.  It’s that simple.  Is it unfortunate when one of your favorites doesn’t work for WWE?  Perhaps.  Is it unfortunate when you favorite gets squashed in a 2 minute battle royal?  Sure.  But Vince doesn’t owe anybody anything.  This is his company.  He gets the lion’s share of the credit when things go right, but he also gets the lion’s share of the blame when things go wrong.


If you believe all the stories Vince can be a ‘grade A’ jerk.  But it’s pretty obvious that he doesn’t have an easy job.  I mean, have you ever managed employees?  I’m a project manager for a software company and sometimes even there you have tough problems deal with.  And I don’t have to worry about someone whacking me with a steel chair (I don’t think).  I imagine wrestlers are not the easiest bunch to control.  The testosterone and egos are immense and yet their careers are so fragile.  Go back and watch “Beyond the Mat”.  A local promoter tells the camera “If you think you can be a nice guy and be a successful promoter in professional wrestling, you better get out of this business right now.”  Well obviously Vince isn’t going anywhere.


Over the years Vince has portrayed a brash confidence that may or may not be an act.  He comes across as loud and abrasive and very “in your face”.  He reminds me of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay from the TV show “Hell’s Kitchen”.  Ramsay calls the shots.  Vince calls the shots.  Like Ramsay, Vince makes the decisions and people run around to make it happen.  In the end, if you don’t like it…get out.  “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!”  Both guys avoid the common problems associated with “too many cooks in the kitchen” by running their own form of dictatorship.  It works because in Vince’s kitchen there is only 1 cook.  Nobody questions that.


The stability of the WWE is what keeps them on top.  There is no confusion about who makes the final decisions.  When this isn’t the case companies fall apart, eventually torn by personal agendas and jealousies (you remember WCW right?)  I applaud Vince for the way he runs the WWE.  You can’t be this successful for this long without doing something right.


The fascinating thing is almost everybody watches WWE whether they really enjoy it or not because ultimately they want to know what is going on.  They don’t want to be left out of the discussions even if they would rather bitch and moan than support the product.  And if they ever DID get the chance to give Vince a piece of their minds, boy, would they let him have it!


Well, I actually did have that chance.


During WrestleMania week in Phoenix two years ago my buddy and I were heading out to grab lunch.  When the elevator door opened standing right in front of us was none other than Vincent Kennedy McMahon, looking resplendent in a beautiful suit and perfect tie.  He must have been amused because we just stood there like statues.  Finally we walked into the elevator.  It was just the 3 of us and we could barely breathe.

Now I’m a pretty confident guy.  I don’t have a problem talking to anybody.  Basically that is what I do for a living.  But Vince, man, Vince was different.  He is an absolute mountain of a man.  Honest to God I couldn’t believe how big he was.  My friend and I kept our eyes on the floor,  not wanting to…I don’t know…not wanting to make fools of ourselves, get in trouble, say something stupid, who knows?  All I kept thinking was if this elevator breaks that would be the greatest story ever.  Trapped in an elevator for several hours with Vince McMahon.  Can you imagine that conversation?

He broke the ice and said, “You guys having fun.”  Some may have used that chance to tell him all the ways he should change his company.  Not me.  Not my buddy.  During that short elevator ride we simply thanked Vince.  We’d been fans almost out whole lives.  We were having fun in Phoenix.  We were having fun going to all the WWE events.  We were looking forward to WrestleMania 26.  All thanks to his company.  In the end isn’t that what is important?  Whatever your wrestling preferences we should all be having fun because this is entertainment.

I’m looking forward to WrestleMania 29 next year in New York.  It’s going to be awesome, hanging out in the Big Apple partying with my friends!  And I have Vincent Kennedy McMahon to thank for this because we know there will be a WrestleMania next year, and the next year, and the next year…

Vince is a survivor and I’m better off for it.

In the elevator all we said was “Thanks for everything, Vince.”  And we meant it.